Behind the Scenes of “The Birds” in Bodega by Kathlene
I recently spoke with former Bodega resident Merritt Clifton, editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE magazine, and he had some fascinating stories to share about his time growing up in this area. I roared with laughter over his tales about being an extra in the famous Hitchcock movie, “The Birds.” Merritt’s a gifted writer so I’m posting everything in his own words. Take it away Merritt:
I started school at Potter School in Bodega in 1958, and attended it most of the time until it was closed & moved temporarily into the fire hall at the beginning of 1962.
My father was the last principal of Potter School. My younger brother & I were among the four Potter students who were selected to be extras in The Birds.
The meeting hall that formed the top floor of the schoolhouse was converted into the interior of the house where the bird attacks were supposed to have occurred. The exterior shell of the house was set up on the baseball diamond beside Potter School.
The running scenes were filmed at Bodega Bay. The film was edited so as to move Potter School from Bodega to the location of the much less picturesque Grange Hall in Bodega Bay.
Although I was actually in only the classroom and running scenes, I was on the set for the filming of almost every scene involving bird attacks–which was accomplished in just four days of actual shooting time. (The set-up took much longer.)
Suzanne Pleshette was a natural teacher, off set as well as on, and spent a lot of time with the extras just because she liked children. She had an authoritative presence, but in a quite warm & gentle way.
Tippi Hedren was a constantly frightened nervous wreck–and the least visibly interested in animals, of anyone involved, other than Rod Taylor, who was terribly ill and spent most of the time when on the set in his chair, exhausted and apparently in pain. Some of the crew might have played mean tricks on Tippi, as she was not well-liked. Hitchcock and Pleshette were looking out for her, though Hitchcock also scolded her at times, more harshly than he ever scolded anyone else. Once she stuck her hand in a bird cage, was nipped by one of the normally quite well-behaved mynahs, and Hitchcock went ballistic.
The only live birds used by deliberate intent were several very highly trained mynahs, who were quite carefully handled at all times. Alfred Hitchcock was extremely strict about what was done with them. Presumably there was an American Humane Association set rep present, but even if there wasn’t, neither Hitchcock nor Suzanne Pleshette would have put up with any animal abuse.
Hitchcock was very pro-animal anyway, liked to have the young extras following him around, and took many opportunities to explain things, including his intention of improving human treatment of birds. He asked if any of us had BB guns (none did), and vigorously denounced boys who shot birds with BB guns for fun.
Most of the birds used were:
a) Mechanical crows, dozens of them, that clipped to a person’s clothing or hair like a bow tie.
b) Papier mache birds — by the hundreds. The crew left some behind. My father gathered some of them up for souvenirs, and still has them.
c) Masonite silhouettes. There were hundreds of these, too. They were still visible, nailed to fences and rooftops, until many years later. They disappeared, I believe, during the hippie influx into the region of 1968-1973.
d) Wild volunteers. Birds frequently visited Potter School anyway, including gulls from Bodega Bay and all sorts of birds who fed along the banks of nearby Salmon Creek, but the bogus birds had the effect of decoys, bringing thousands of additional wild birds into the vicinity to see what was going on.
At that point, I had attended Potter School for three years, but had never before seen so many wild birds, there or anywhere. Hitchcock kept interrupting his own staged scenes to make sure the wild birds were captured on camera.
The other Potter school children who were in The Birds were my younger brother Ted Clifton; Debby Chenowyth, a gorgeous blonde whose father owned the sawmill just northeast of Bodega, & had two glamorous older sisters; and Vickie Lynn Nichols, a very hefty girl whose younger brother, Jerry Wayne Nichols, inherited & for some years operated the family dairy farm just west of Bodega, about halfway between Potter School and the Watson Valley schoolhouse.
There are only a couple of kids I can identify: me, twice; my brother Ted, who is the little guy at the extreme left of the classroom photo; and Vicky Lynn Nichols, who is running more or less beside me.
The running scenes were organized in two different ways: with all the Hollywood kids in front, and with all the Hollywood kids in back. Us locals were just to fill out the crowd.
The Hollywood kids were all an obnoxiously bratty lot, in my recollection. Bodega was a very warm, friendly little place where everyone knew everyone else & almost everyone was related, at least by marriage, so at first we were very taken aback by the sheer nastiness we encounted from the Hollywood kids. Even Debby, to them, was trash, several socio-economic levels below them, & they did not let her forget it.
But they were playing ball in our park. What the Hollywood kids learned in a hurry was that while they were all cut-throat rivals of each other for parts & hopes of future stardom, we were a team, including all the kids who were not part of the filming. Mess with one Bodega kid & you were messing with all.
Some of the Hollywood kids also may have seen that Alfred Hitchcock & Suzanne Pleshette, in particular, were warming up to us in a way that they didn’t with the Hollywood brats.
Meanwhile back at the ranch — well, in front of the Mantua Ranch, which included the hillside behind the school in this scene, that’s me in front and my brother Ted right behind me, almost dead center in this scene, with Veronica Cartwright to the left, Morgan Brittany in front of me, and Tippi Hedren to the right, with another lad directly beside me. I believe the third girl from the left in the row of five, ending with Suzanne Pleshette, was Debbie Chenowyth. The girl directly beside Suzanne Pleshette may be Vicky Lynn Nichols. I can’t identify the four blurred kids in front, except that they were all from Hollywood.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Stay tuned for my next post in which Merritt recounts how they threw one of the Hollywood child stars into the creek behind Potter Schoolhouse!